Blocking On Twitter

Lately on Twitter, there have been some interesting threads (and posts written about those threads) on the topic of blocking people on Twitter. It’s a timeless debate with no morally correct answer. Some believe any user has the right to block others, while others believe Twitter is about open, public debate for all.

This wouldn’t be a topic I’d write about, but this morning I saw an article on CNN (!!!) about Marc Andreessen’s blocking techniques on Twitter. You can read that here. As I was reading it, lines like this felt like the author of the post on CNN was drawing some far-out conclusions:

The famed Silicon Valley investor appears likely to block people who think differently than he does — and maybe pose a threat to the bubble of ideas that he wants to grow.

I am not sure that’s a fair line, especially an opening line of a post on CNN. Personally, I have received public replies from Marc that have disagreed with my original tweet, and I have — like many, many others — have publicly disagreed with him and not been blocked. Second, a VC’s investment in technologies like Bitcoin and VR (for which Marc’s firm is somewhat famous for) are surely met with skepticism and differences of opinion, likely even within the firm’s own general partnership. Fred Wilson has written a few posts about how he believes VR is currently over-hyped, and some people shared those posts publicly on Twitter and publicly agree with that, and they tell Marc that, and I don’t think he blocks them for it.

Stepping back, let’s look at the root of why an active user may block folks on Twitter. I partially know this because, as a very active (but small) user of Twitter, I probably blocked more accounts in 2015 than new accounts that I followed:

1/ Foggy Identity: Facebook forced users to use real names and clear pictures of their faces. Most do. On Twitter, often you can’t tell who a tweet is coming from. Those same users may not have a clear picture of their face, may not use their real name, may not publicly signal in their bio where they work and are affiliated, and may not use the bio feature to include a URL back to their profile or LinkedIn. I know that when I get too many tweets from the same account and I can’t tell who it is, I just block it. “Who” says something matters more than “what” they say.

2/ A Changing Twitter Feed: Many active users of Twitter are deeply committed to the product and root for the company to succeed. They also sometimes fear it will be gobbled up by a larger company or may not make the steps necessary to advance the product in the same way Facebook has managed to. Being vocal about blocking people is also a power user’s way of sending a signal back to Twitter that hopefully improves its data sets that will be leveraged to produce an algorithmic newsfeed (like Facebook) as the company moves away from time-based feeds. Oftentimes I’ll mark spam users as spam (which is bad for them), but most of the time, I’ll just block because I don’t want to mark those folks as spammers, even if it feels like they’re spamming me.

3/ Beware: Outrage Twitter: It’s pretty hard to have a civil conversation on Twitter. Part of this is due to the product and its constraints, and part of it is because of human nature. It’s easy to pick up a phone, create a Twitter account, and just get pissed off about various issues and fire off a bunch of tweets. It’s great, in the sense it amplifies the notion of free speech, but there’s no clause in the first amendment which also guarantees that one’s free speech must, by law, be heard by every recipient. Overall, this is a cultural shift I’ve observed on Twitter over the past few years, and on one hand, it’s awesome because people are really leveraging the medium to change opinions and drive change, but there’s a darker side to it, at times, where it becomes too easy to take a breath and think about a civil response or disagreement. A step further, a journalist with a big public platform can take those tweets as public record and use them in a post — oftentimes, the context gets lost in that transfer. That can tire a power user on the platform who wants to make sure they see the tweets from the people they want to hear from.

4/ Faving Craze: For someone who may “fave” or star lots of tweets, that can add noise to the original user’s activity stream and potentially incite a “block” to clear up the stream, though here I’d recommend a “mute.”

5/ Observational Policing: A reader of this post pointed out that when she observes someone behaving badly on Twitter, she reports it as harassment and also blocks them.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus